Monday, 16 June 2014
DW Companions as PCs: K9
No, wait, that's not right, let's try that again. Here's what actually happened in our imaginary RPG campaign:
Ever since Harry's player left, the group has been down to just two players plus the GM. It's been there before, of course, but with the UNIT players away for good, there's no sign of it changing on the horizon. The GM is finding this a bit limiting, with the players often needing a bit of back-up to get things done. So, when they take a shine to a robot character he's just introduced, he decides to make the tin dog into a "Party NPC": a GM-controlled character that nonetheless travels with, and helps out the PCs on their adventures.
Yes, I'm arguing that K9 is actually an NPC. But the title of this little series is "Companions as PCs", and K9 is usually regarded as a companion, so what on Earth am I up to?
Well, for one thing, it's hard to see what kind of player would come up with a character like K9. Not because the idea of playing a robot dog is too weird in itself (players do come up with some odd ideas), but because of the physical limitations he would have to be agreeing to. We can, perhaps, gloss over the ridiculously low ground clearance, and claim that K9 could actually traverse rougher ground than the BBC prop ever could. (There is evidence for this, for example, in Underworld, in which he has no trouble with moving down rock tunnels). But even so, stairs are going to pose a problem, not to mention swamps and similar natural hazards.
If that isn't limiting enough, he hasn't even got any hands. Yes, there appears to be a magnet in his nose that lets him pick up metal objects (as he does in The Pirate Planet), but the inability to manipulate things is surely a doozy of a disadvantage.
But there's a better reason than that: the way he acts. K9's overwhelming personality traits are obedience and loyalty. He very rarely disobeys an instruction from the Doctor or his female companion, and it's not that often that he even takes action on his own initiative - when he does it's usually a response to an attack. He is, effectively, a tool for the PCs, doing what they ask him, rather than leading the story. Also consider how, in a great many stories, the PCs leave him behind in the TARDIS for the first episode or two, only calling him (via the Doctor's "dog whistle") when they realise he'll be handy. If he's a PC, the others are deliberately keeping him out of the action.
Indeed, if it weren't for the fact that he speaks, he'd be no more a character than the sonic screwdriver is - a handy gadget to get you out of scrapes.
But, let's be honest, he's a pretty useful gadget. K9 has an extensive database, making him a walking library of information. He has sophisticated analytical equipment that let him determine the composition of chemicals, rocks, and the like, to a sufficient accuracy and sensitivity that he can act as a bloodhound or carbon date an artefact. He has an array of sensors and receivers that detect not only electromagnetic radiation of all kinds, but more obscure forms of energy. Including, apparently, psychic waves.
He has hearing so sensitive that he can detect the Doctor's double heartbeat from several metres away. He can also interface with a remarkably wide range of computers, and even drive a vehicle, if it's controlled by one. He even has a laser printer in his side (Underworld, again).
And, of course, he has a photon-beam gun. Initially with a full range of settings, from The Ribos Operation onwards, it no longer seems to be able to 'kill'. (Although, to be fair, he can cut through rock or sheet metal with it, and one of the stun settings is "indefinitely", which makes you wonder what the difference is). He also seems to be fairly well armoured, able to resist most small arms fire.
K9 claims to have no emotions, but he's certainly at least capable of simulating them, wagging his antenna/tail, looking dejected, and so on, as the occasion demands. He is, especially early on, very literal minded, and, like Data in Star Trek, does not appear to have been programmed with an understanding of idiom. Or contractions. Or the ability to use the words "yes" and "no". He is, on the other hand, intelligent enough to beat the Doctor at chess.
If somebody really does want to run K9 as a PC, an obvious change is to make him more pro-active than he usually is on the series. It's not without precedent, since he does, for example, head off after the Doctor in The Sunmakers even after having been told to wait. (He's then foiled by a ladder, but the player's just going to have get used to that sort of thing). It will likely help if the other players don't keep giving him orders, especially if the orders are along the lines of "stay!"
It's also important to bear in mind that there are no less than four K9s in the series. (Because the character's copyright belongs to scriptwriter Bob Baker, not the BBC, he has also appeared in entirely unrelated shows, but they're not relevant here).
The original hails from around the year 5000 AD, where he was built as a companion and technical assistant to a medical doctor working on an asteroid. Presumably, then, his data banks don't go any further forward than this, although, to be honest, that's quite a large sweep of history to be going on with. He runs on batteries, which have a tendency to go flat after extensive use, and normally needs to plug into something to recharge.
Of all the K9s, he's the one that's most like a computer on wheels, and, arguably, the most obviously an NPC. There is some indication that he is programmed to be loyal to Leela, rather than the Doctor, and he eventually leaves with her when she stays behind on Gallifrey.
This model is replaced almost immediately by a second one, presumably built by the Doctor himself. This one does appear to be slightly more advanced, although it initially has exactly the same voice, and a similar personality. Likely programmed with a wider range of knowledge, this K9 also appears to be self-recharging (although it can take a while), and, even more impressively, has the ability to regenerate limited damage to his circuitry. This, the longest serving K9 on the series, is eventually forced to stay with Romana in E-Space, apparently unable to return to the regular universe.
A third K9, also seemingly built by the Doctor, is given to Sarah Jane Smith as a gift in the pilot of the failed spin-off series K9 and Company. From the little we can see, this one has a more advanced artificial intelligence than the others, with a greater degree of personality and independence, making him more suitable as a PC. This is the K9 that we see in School Reunion, and that eventually "dies" in that episode. The fourth K9, who replaces him, seems much the same.
It's likely that the first K9 remains with Leela, and the second with Romana, after they leave the Doctor. As we'll see when we get to Romana's entry in a couple of weeks, this means that there may have been a point when there were two of them on Gallifrey. Indeed, this actually happens in the spin-off audio series Gallifrey, in which the newer model clearly regards the original as inferior. While the original is killed off in that series, it's at least possible that the second K9 could still be out there somewhere, never ageing, and, at the very least, a useful source of information for original PCs in the Doctor Who universe...